Education

A $20 million upgrade to Long Beach High would mean higher taxes. How will residents vote?

A rendering of Long Beach High School shows the renovations and changes that will be made to the campus if a $20 million bond issue is passed by voters in the Long Beach School District. The vote is Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018, from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m.  at the school.
A rendering of Long Beach High School shows the renovations and changes that will be made to the campus if a $20 million bond issue is passed by voters in the Long Beach School District. The vote is Thursday, Aug. 2, 2018, from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. at the school. Carol Paola

The high school’s campus is old — its technology is outdated, it has security and health issues, and it’s running out of space.

But supporters of a bond for Long Beach High School say it can all be fixed — for a price of $20 million.

On Thursday, registered voters who live in the Long Beach School District will have the chance to vote “yes” or “no” to the $20 million bond, which will be paid back over 20 years.

Will it make the school a leader for the next generation? Or is it just too much added debt to a district that’s still paying off more than $4 million on two existing bonds? Here’s what both sides are saying.

‘Safety first’

There are almost 50 points of entry and exit at LBHS, and several of the doors stay unlocked to meet fire safety requirements. The new plan for renovating the campus, which was built in the 1950s, would turn the school “inward,” in much the same way Gulfport High School was upgraded.

It will drop the entrances from near 50 to four, said Assistant Principal Patrick Bennett.

“After the Parkland, Florida, shooting, every school on the Coast had incidents of people making threats,” Bennett said. “We brought in the FBI, the counter terrorism expert from Keesler Air Force Base, as well as Long Beach Police Department and the Harrison County Sheriff’s Office. The Keesler person evaluated the campus and gave us a report showing where the major issues were — this plan addresses those issues.”

Bennett said the main security issues stem from LBHS being an “open” campus.

“We’re wide open —anyone can walk on and anyone can walk off,” he said. “But this plan, which was drawn by the same architect that designed the Gulfport High campus, changes that.”

Principal Talia Lock said they have had some concerns over what will happen to the students if there’s a fire with a reduced number of exits.

“We had some concerns about that, but the new design has an open space in the middle where we can bring students and assess the situation,” Lock said. “If there was an actual fire, then we would have a plan on how and where to exit.”

Bennett reiterated that students would be able to get out in case of an emergency.

“We will only have four entrances and one main entrance, but there will be more than four exits,” he said. “There are multiple exits that are in accordance with fire codes.”

Lock said the security issue is not being used as a “scare tactic.”

“It’s safety first, absolutely,” she said. “But this building needs an update and we need to be competitive with other schools.”

‘Staying competitive’

Although the school district has been recognized nationally by U.S. News & World Report and it received good marks from the Mississippi Department of Education assessments in 2017, Lock said the high school can’t compete with other public schools on the Coast.

“We are not competitive right now with Pass Christian, Gulfport High, Ocean Springs — we are losing kids and we are losing families,” Lock said. “We are not competitive when it comes to technology.”

On a recent public tour of the school, in which the Sun Herald participated, the computer lab was highlighted. It was the last stop on the almost two-hour tour. It sits in the middle of the school’s library. Several rows of computers are running off of power strips on the floor.

“Lightning could strike and it would take out our entire computer lab because everything is running off of power strips and extension cords,” Bennett said.

Lock said mold is also an issue.

“We had to discard a lot of our laptops last year because they had mold on them because we have to store our computers in a room behind the library,” she said. “It’s not energy-efficient and the air conditioners constantly have to run and that’s expensive — we have to pay more for the upkeep of this building because we can’t send kids to school when there’s mold.”

Construction is winding down as Gulfport High gets ready to start the year at their rebuilt campus. The campus is designed to help students be prepared for whatever field they want to go into, whether that means going to college, entering the mili

‘We’re running out of space’

Space, or the lack thereof, is another issue why bond proponents say it’s time for a new rebuild.

The school currently has about 1,000 students enrolled.

“We’ve outgrown the school and we’re running out of space,” Lock said. “Our cafeteria is old and it’s so small that we sometimes have a runoff of students outside the eating area and under the awnings outside. We also don’t have enough space to have a general assembly with all of our students at one time — we currently have to have four assemblies, one for each grade.”

Bennett said the increase in school size would also be beneficial for the school’s fine arts programs.

“We have an award-winning band that can’t even rehearse everyone together at one time inside,” he said. “And our theater department is basically operating out of a closet — these are award-winning programs and they need better facilities for the students.”

The opposition

A similar bond issue was brought before the public in 2005 but was voted down by just a few votes.

If the bond issue is passes this time, it will be added to the price of car tags sales and renewals, as well as property taxes.

According to the schools’ website, the bond will increase property taxes on a home assessed at $150,000 by about $200 annually.

The school is already paying off two bonds with a combined total of about $4.5 million.

One person who contributed to the Sun Herald’s anonymous Sound Off column said taxes in Long Beach are already “too high.”

“Long Beach taxes are the highest on the Coast. Residents please get out and vote ‘NO’ for the school bond issue. We don’t need our taxes to go up. What we pay now is ridiculous compared to other cities on the Coast,” said the Sound Off’s author.

The author was contacted by email but did not respond to the Sun Herald’s request for additional comment.

Another Sound Off author, who also did not respond to email requests, said the security concern is being used to scare voters.

“Long Beach is pushing for a new high school and is promoting it as an imperative for the safety of our kids. I believe that recent school shootings have created a false narrative that plays on emotions. I am hearing about Long Beach’s many exit and entry points as a danger. What evidence is there that reducing this somehow makes our kids safer from shootings? Schools are still unarmed and a motivated shooter still gets in. But, now the kids are trapped with no exits to escape,” said the Sound Off author.

The bond at a glance

Should the bond pass, it will be paid back over 20 years. The school district has a bond with a balance of $179,000 that is due in 2020 and a bond with a balance of $4.3 million due in 2029.

The most the school can borrow on a bond is $20 million. According to the school’s website, this is the reason the district will have to rebuild and renovate at the school’s current location and not build a new school where Harper McCaughan Elementary School is located.

The district is also operating at the maximum mills it can levy for operational costs at 55 mills.

Phase 1 of the construction would begin in the summer of 2019.

How to vote

The vote will be held at Long Beach High School from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 2. All registered voters in the Long Beach School District can vote for or against the bond.

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